ELF couples: cross-cultural love relationships

Spring has finally arrived in Finland, and all of nature rejoices.© Nina Valtavirta

Spring has finally arrived in Finland,
and all of nature rejoices.
© Nina Valtavirta

When thinking of the common settings in which English is used as a lingua franca (ELF), you probably think of the Big Three – academia, business, and international organisations/diplomacy. It’s easy to forget that English is also a lingua franca of love, a common language of relationships in which neither partner shares a first language, and neither are native speakers of English. Looking over the body of research on ELF, it’s clear that the use of ELF in intimate relationships is largely unexplored territory.

Though the ELFA project is focused on ELF in academia, we’re fortunate to welcome Kaisa Pietikäinen, a new PhD student investigating this widespread phenomenon of ELF couples. She presented her PhD research plan at the last ELFA seminar of the academic term, which was held on May 6. Her ongoing data collection opens a window into the personal lives of eight ELF couples who are recording their use of ELF in everyday, informal settings such as at the dinner table or in the car. With this data, Kaisa will explore how ELF couples achieve successful communication, and how their communication tactics might differ from other ELF contexts.

Kaisa has already broken new ground with her MA thesis on ELF couples’ use of code-switching in interview data. Her thesis was completed at Newcastle University under the direction of Peter Sercombe and Alan Firth, who introduced her to the study of ELF and Conversation Analysis (CA), which will be her main methodology for the doctoral research. Unlike this earlier study, which drew its data from Kaisa’s interviews with six ELF couples, her PhD research will broaden this analysis to naturally occurring ELF interaction recorded by the couples themselves.

Love without borders

The eight couples who have volunteered to participate in Kaisa’s newest study (and whose identities are of course kept anonymous) are as diverse as in any other ELF setting. They have their origins in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America, and they speak 11 different first languages among them (see the table below for the breakdown of first languages). An important criteria for inclusion in the study is that neither partner speaks English as a first language. This type of relationship, when one partner speaks the first language of the other partner, has been studied in some depth, but ELF couples are “equally unequal” – neither partner enjoys the advantage of speaking her/his mother tongue.

An overview of the first language backgrounds of the ELF couples in Kaisa Pietikäinen's research

An overview of the first language backgrounds of the ELF couples in Kaisa Pietikäinen’s research

In addition to these criteria, the ELF couples must use English as their main “couple tongue”, although they might speak their own first languages with their children. Based on some ELF couples I know (and conversations overhead on the metro), this seems to be a quite common arrangement. The language a couple starts out with seems to be the one they stay with. In one case I know of, the couple has learned each other’s language well enough to practice passive bilingualism when their children are present (i.e. each partner speaks his/her own first language exclusively), but English is still used for fighting when the kids aren’t around. 🙂

Finally, these aren’t mere “holiday romances”. Among the eight couples Kaisa has recruited, all currently live together and have been in a relationship from 2,5 to 17 years, with the average among the couples being just under eight years together. I’m sure you know plenty of couples who share a common language and culture, but they never came close to lasting eight years together. Is there something in these ELF couples’ communication that the rest of us ought to know about?

Achieving successful communication

In addition to building on her earlier research on ELF couples’ use of code-switching (alternating between more than one language in a single conversation or utterance), Kaisa will use this new data to investigate the communication tactics used by ELF couples to achieve successful communication. As a research methodology, Conversation Analysis (CA) is well-suited for this task, as it focuses on the details of interaction as they function for the participants. Rather than being hypothesis driven, CA is exploratory and data-driven, letting the data speak for itself.

One of my early favorites by Anna Mauranen on prevention of misunderstanding in academic ELF

One of my early favorites by Anna Mauranen on prevention of misunderstanding in academic ELF

Another sub-study in this project will examine instances of misunderstanding in the couples’ talk – how they arise and how they are resolved. A good deal of earlier ELF research has focused on misunderstandings, including ELF users’ proactive efforts to prevent it before it occurs, as well as strategies for resolving misunderstanding. Kaisa’s work will add to this important body of research, and likely introduce communication strategies unique to the private domains from which the data is drawn.

Finally, the findings from the dominant fields of ELF research – academia and business – will be contrasted with the findings gained from ELF couples. This will be a further opportunity to highlight unique features of ELF interaction in intimate relationships. Moreover, these other domains of ELF might find there’s something to learn from these couples, who also manage with negotiations, disagreements, timetables and stress, but in uniquely cooperative relationships. These communication strategies may also be of interest to those in working relationships in multicultural settings.

Altogether it’s a timely study in an unexplored area, and I’m not the only one who thinks so – the University of Helsinki has awarded Kaisa with a Young Researcher’s Grant for 2013. Congratulations to Kaisa, whose work is underway!


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